Is it a coincidence that the main character of Robert DeNiro’s THE GOOD SHEPHERD, Edward Wilson (played by Matt Damon), and the current president of the United States both come from privileged White-Anglo Protestant backgrounds; both attended Yale where they were members of the secretive Skull & Bones fraternity; and had successful careers in service of this country due in part to the cronyism of his fellow crumbs in the upper-crust? With those similarities hard to discount, THE GOOD SHEPHERD is about the powerful men who birthed the CIA and operated as the clandestine puppet-masters behind the so-called “little wars” of the greater Cold one against Communism.
The film opens with the CIA’s botched 1961 attempt by the United States to invade Castro’s Communist Cuba at the Bay of Pigs with Wilson one of the key wizards behind the curtain. It is Wilson’s first big mistake in a lifetime of successes - running spy missions in Germany during World War II, joining the nascent CIA after it - documented via flashback throughout the film. It soon becomes clear that men of Wilson’s caliber and upbringing are judged by the level of loyalty they have for the Stars & Stripes, a self-assigned right to determine the military and financial course of this country. Indeed, the rest of us are, as Wilson states later, “just renting.” The flip-side to this deity-complex is the isolation it causes; isolation from your own family and from outside opinion, inevitably sending you down dangerous paths like the Bay of Pigs or perhaps the current situation in Iraq. In THE GOOD SHEPHERD, the irony is that the security Wilson strives to keep for his family (and his country) keeps him away from them, ultimately with tragic results.
As an actor, Robert DeNiro has most notably and memorable collaborated with Director Martin Scorsese. However, here as a director he seems to take his filmmaking cues from a less-frequent collaborator, Francis Ford Coppola. While Scorsese is known to capture thuggish protagonists and stories at the bloodier street levels (a la DeNiro’s last credited directorial effort, A BRONX TALE), Coppola’s best films are large operatic tragedies that feature authoritarian men who keep their cards close if not inside their vest. Indeed, one can make an obvious comparison for THE GOOD SHEPHERD to the first two GODFATHER films. From a style standpoint, take the amazing camera work of Robert Richardson, truly one of the best cinematographers working today; his dark frames provide similar emotional content to Gordon Willis’s work. For his part, Damon handles his Michael Corleone-ish cold-hearted poker-face killer-exterior with aplomb; you can very much see fiery, yet subtle emotion bubbling beneath his eyes. Above all, plot-point and cinematic device comparisons can be made so much so, that by the time Joe Pesci makes his perfunctory retired-don cameo, you half expect Hyman Roth to pop out of the closet and ask for a “smaller piece” of cake. Perhaps this speaks to the cultural permeation of THE GODFATHER, which in turn owes its own debt to Greek and Shakespearean tragedies; but you also feel a clone’s cold teeth ever nipping at your heals.
At over two and half hours, THE GOOD SHEPHERD is quite long but if you get sucked in – and you should – it’s an overall captivating ride similar to the films it stylistically strives to be. The film’s true power, however, is its open window view into the successes, failures and fallacies of the men who, behind closed doors, really run this country.
***1/2 out of *****